Friday, December 16, 2016

How two books left me deconstructing politics and movies with the same lens

One night not too long ago, I found myself looking for something to watch on Netflix. I tried my phone, but it would not cast Netflix to the Chromecast dongle I had plugged into the TV. I tried the tablet, but it was dead and needed time to charge. YouTube worked on my phone, so I started there.

Not feeling so interested in fiction, I looked for videos by Dr. Ross W. Greene, PhD, child psychologist, and author of two of the best books I have ever read on the subject of human behavior, The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings. I love the books, and am reading the latter in a second pass for better comprehension. But now I have found that they have taken some of the joy out of movies for me.

I like to watch action movies and still do if the writing is good. But those two books have irreversibly changed my mindset, such that I can never look at movies the same way again. Dr. Greene's basic premise in both books is simple, and as a parent, one that I appreciate learning and applying. Kids would do well if they could. He proves without a doubt that challenging behavior is not a question of motivation. He also proves that the punishment and reward model that has been used for centuries on kids doesn't really work. Punishment and reward assumes that kids lack motivation to do better. Kids are born with motivation to do better, but they get punished when they lack the skills to meet parental expectations.

Here are two simple examples. When kids have trouble reading, we respond with empathy and work with them to find the roadblocks to reading. When kids have a temper tantrum we punish them and make no inquiry as to why they had a temper tantrum. We demand compliance despite a lack of certain knowledge: whether or not kids have the skills required to comply with our expectations.

Kids are born problem solvers, and if they're lucky, they get to solve all of the problems they can't solve on their own with their parents until they no longer need their parents to do so. When there are unsolved problems there is challenging behavior. Most parents will whip out the rod rather than spoil the child. Spanking is still prevalent in better than 70% of American homes today. Most parents would rather not endure an investigation for unsolved problems. They don't believe or may not be aware that collaborating with the child to solve the problem that gives rise to the challenging behavior will do any good. That's just not how they were raised. So they offer the carrot and the stick, instead.

Dr. Greene has proven with 38 years of experience working with kids that collaborating with kids to solve their problems reduces challenging behavior in detention facilities, in-patient and out-patient treatment centers, in schools and in life. He is building empirical evidence to show that it is more effective to help kids solve problems that prevent them from meeting parental expectations than to punish them for failing to meet those expectations. If you're a parent, The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings are highly recommended reading. Even if you're not a parent, you will still learn something from them. For me, this is not just about raising kids, it's about humanity, all of us.

I have been reading my second pass of Raising Human Beings, to learn how to build a collaborative partnership with my kids. I am now dedicated to collaborating with my kids to solve problems that can lead to challenging behavior. I no longer believe in the punishment/reward dogma, regardless of who promotes it.

As I said before, I like to watch action movies, well I used to like to watch action movies. Maybe I still do. But now, when I watch action movies, well, any movie, I find myself deconstructing the plots. I ask questions while I'm watching. Why are they fighting to solve a problem when they could collaborate to solve the problem between them? Why so much destruction when they could get some counseling to solve their problems? Why not just set an appointment and have a meeting to discuss it?

The basic plot of every action movie is that with sufficient force, any problem can be solved between protagonist and antagonist. The thrust of any action movie is that punishment is justice served. No questions asked. But during the movie, I'm asking questions.

I'm even beginning to deconstruct intellectual dramas of intrigue. It's still the same thing, but instead of using action in the plot, it's deception, intrigue and diversion. Why all the mental effort to score points against each other? Why all the effort to one-up the other guy? And why should we enjoy seeing someone else defeated in the struggle?

How did I get to be this way? I have actually been this way for a long, long time, but didn't know it. My "prime directive", a phrase I borrow here from Star Trek, is to err on the side of peace. I made the decision to err on the side of peace, as far as I can remember, about 20 years ago. If I make any errors today, I will be sure to err on the side of peace. People are already suffering and there is no need for me to add to it. So when I read The Explosive Child, and Raising Human Beings, it was for me, an epiphany. It was confirmation that I've been right all along.

It was a with an enormous relief that I learned why I challenged my own parents, particularly my dad. Dear old dad. I still love him, but can't talk to him. At least, he doesn't want to talk to me to punish me for some trivial offense in the grand scheme of life. He lacked the capacity to teach me the skills I needed to comply with his expectations. He has no clue that every punishment he imposed on me did nothing to teach me the skills I needed to comply with his expectations, or the skills I would need later in life. Sure, we could say that he taught me about the "real world", but who wants to live in a world where punishment and reward are favored over collaborating together to solve problems?

By now you're wondering, "Where did the politics go?" They're still here. Those two books now give me pause to deconstruct politics. Considering the problems that face humanity today, we need to collaborate to solve them or we are all toast.

Think of the tension between liberals and conservatives. Both sides want to punish each other. The wealthy want to punish the poor for not getting it, for not knowing how to better themselves. The poor feel vindictive for the punishments they've received and want to punish the wealthy for making their lives far more difficult than they need to be by writing rules that favor the wealthy over the poor. Both sides believe that there is a solution in rewards and punishment.

Congress is set with conservative majorities in both houses to cut social welfare programs and is intent on working with President-elect Trump to effect those cuts in the name of "austerity". Austerity for who? All of us? Or just the people most deemed undeserving of government support? Who gets to decide this? Are we going to drug test the CEO of every business that takes a government insured loan? Or are we only going to drug test the people who receive food stamps? Does this austerity really solve any problems or is it just punishment to fit the narrative that serves a special interest?

When Bernie Sanders was running for president, he talked a lot about Scandinavia, places like Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. He talked about universal health care and free college education in Scandinavia. What we didn't hear about so much is the low rates of recidivism in their correctional systems (courts and prisons). What is recidivism? Recidivism is the tendency for prisoners to commit and be convicted of a crime after release from prison. Scandinavian recidivism rates are a fraction of what they are here, so what are they doing right? They are treating prisoners like human beings, teaching them the skills that are required for getting their needs met without hurting others.

What else is significant about Scandinavian countries? According to this video starring Dr. Greene, Scandinavia has a long tradition of non-punitive, non-adversarial interaction with kids and it shows. Scandinavians gets it that punishment and reward pedagogy isn't working. They also banned spanking.

Scandinavian countries are considered to be socialist countries here, as if that's a bad thing. But we don't see them building enormous military infrastructures, invading countries and setting up bases around the world now, do we? We have bases all over the world and then wax eloquent about "free trade" as if other countries enter trade agreements with us voluntarily.

There must be something to what they're doing in Scandinavia that we're not doing here. In Scandinavia, they don't like to talk about God or religion. It's not central to their ideas of how government should run. Members of our Congress are 92% Christian. Most of them claim to be conservatives. I suspect that those conservatives are not about to spare the rod to spoil the country. Like their neoliberal brothers and sisters, they are set to impose discipline...I mean, austerity, on the rest of us while sparing their billionaire and millionaire buddies. Remember, many of the same people who voted for the bailout in 2008 are still in Congress today.

We are a nation divided. By focusing on punishing the other side, we lose the time we so desperately need to solve the problems that face us all. By focusing on scoring points against the other side, we lose time that we could use to solve the problems that face us all. Every jeer, every challenge, every scandal serves to distract us from the problems that face humanity.

Our oceans are filling up with plastic. The fish are being scoured from the oceans giving rise to the slime. The polar ice caps are melting and will soon be gone. Our water is being polluted with fracking. Our air is being polluted with industry and transportation. This is due to public policy choices that were made while we were scoring points in politics against the other guy. Who makes public policy? The top one percent. The billionaires and millionaires who are the relevant funders of the people are elected and re-elected to Congress and state houses.

Based on what I know now, the entire US economy, with it's outrageous inequality, is designed to impose punishment on the 99% for failing to meet an expectation that most people do not have the skills to meet. Most people don't have the skills to become wealthy. Homeless people don't want to be homeless. They just lack the skills to find a home. Our best estimate right now is that 44% of the homeless have jobs. Are you sure that punishing them by cutting benefits is going to help them?

Yet CEO pay continues to go up. The wealthy continue to earn 74% of their money from intellectual property, rather than helping the world be a better place to be. The wealthy continue to write self dealing rules and then have the nerve to say that they prosper in a free market, why can't the rest of us do the same?

Poverty is not a question of motivation, it is a question of skills. This is the point missed on both sides, and now that conservatives have majorities in both houses of Congress, the presidency, majorities in both houses in a majority of states and a majority of governors offices, they are keen to prove their point: punishment and reward as motivation really works - skills don't matter.

What we are doing now isn't working, but I have hope. Bernie Sanders gave me hope and I voted for him. He continues to do what he does best by pointing out the self-dealing nature of oligarchy. He continues to focus on the positive things we can do as a country, to make the world a better place to be.

For centuries, we've been training our kids on punishment and reward, just like Pavlov trained his dogs. This has led us to a state of the nation where people voted out of fear, other people sought to rig the election out of fear and still others sought to alert us to alternatives to acting out of fear. Let us not forget that Hitler's Germany was an authoritarian state and that Hitler himself was a product of a culture built on child abuse.

I believe that the work of Dr. Greene can foment a peaceful political revolution and create a generation of kids and parents dedicated to solving the problems that beset us all. When we collaborate with our kids to solve the problems that give rise to challenging behavior, we develop the skills to discern the problem from the distraction. We begin to see the behavior as a signal, not the problem. We can then cast aside the political posturing and focus on the solutions and policies that help all of us, not just some of us.
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